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Business Law Today

Tipping back the scales
Law firms in search of work-life balance
By Francesca Jarosz
If only Tyresse Horne wouldn't have checked her e-mail.

Horne was at the airport waiting to board a flight to London for the weekend when she spotted a message from the law firm where she works, Shearman and Sterling in New York, saying that she was needed there that weekend. So she left the airport and went back to the office.

The incident wasn't too unusual for Horne, 39 and a sixth-year associate at the firm, who averages a 16-hour workday, plus another 15 to 20 hours on weekends. She said finding time for a life outside law poses a challenge.

"People just treat you like a machine," Horne said. "If you didn't feel like you were in a pressure cooker all the time, the work would be enjoyable."

She isn't alone in the "pressure cooker."

At large law firms, the typical lawyer bills between 2,200-2,300 hours a year, according to data from the National Association for Law Placement Foundation. Combine that with the other commitments, like pro-bono work, speaking engagements and bar involvement, and you've got a group of professionals stretched to fulfill their lawyerly callings and remain whole people, too.

"There are demands for more time than what a person can put in," said Debora de Hoyos, managing partner at Mayer, Brown, Rowe and Maw in Chicago and a mother of three. "Time is the scarcest resource."

Blame it on billable hours, demanding clients or the tethering force of technology. The stipulations that firms are placing on lawyers to devote more time is becoming a concern among those in the profession.

Melanie Jester, a law clerk for the U.S. District Court of Western Oklahoma and chair of the Oklahoma Bar Association's committee on work-life balance, said the association has realized the importance of her group to a greater extent in recent months. Since the beginning of 2006, the OBA has lost one member a month to suicide.

"If you're in an environment where it's not OK to go on vacation, then how is it ever going to be OK to seek counseling?" Jester said.

Those at law firms also are recognizing the danger of such an environment.

Paula Patton, NALP's president and CEO, said absence of work-life balance is among the factors leading to attrition in law firms, a trend that NALP has surveyed since 1996. The latest data shows attrition at 19 percent in 2005, the highest figure since the foundation began the studies, and Patton said she doesn't see any signs of it declining.

Patton said losing a fifth-year associate comes at an estimated cost of $300,000 to firms. Multiplied by the number of lawyers leaving, that adds up to millions. "All of this has created a real sense of urgency," Patton said.

Now, those in the legal profession are responding to that urgency by evaluating what causes the work-life imbalance lawyers face and what can be done to change it.

A common culprit for the acceleration in law-firm time demands is increase in the billable-hour requirement, which, many say, has been gradually creeping up over the past decade.

Former ABA President Bob Hirshon launched an initiative to study the effect of billable hours on law firms during his 2001-02 term. Hirshon, now CEO of Tonkon Torp in Portland, Ore., said the project was inspired by the frequent complaints he heard from lawyers about billable hours increasing the pressure of the job.

"Everything was being driven by the billable hour," Hirshon said. "These (billable hour) matrices were defining whether lawyers were well-respected in firms."

According to the 2002 report issued by Hirshon's Commission on Billable Hours, time billing began in the 1960s as a way to eliminate fee schedules, track lawyer productivity and provide clients with better information about charges. Hirshon said the concept really took off in the 1980s and 90s, when computers made tracking hours easier.

There was a spike in hours when firms began raising salary levels to compete for top law talent in the dot-com era of the late 90s, experts say. Companies entered into an "arms race" to provide the highest pay. To compensate, they had to increase the number of hours the firm billed.

"It's this vicious cycle of salary increase and billable hour increase and what it's doing to work-life balance," said Susan Saab Fortney, a law professor at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas, and lead researcher in 2005 NALP study, In Pursuit of Attorney Work-Life Balance: Best Practices in Management.

The stressful nature of the legal profession also presents a challenge for work-life balance.

Chunlin Leonhard, a 42-year-old partner at Sonnenschein, Nath and Rosenthal in Chicago, said even in her time off, she often finds herself thinking about her cases.

"It's not one of those jobs where you can just leave work and go home and be 100 percent home," Leonhard said.

And these days, technology even allows lawyers to bring the work home in the literal sense. While this can help minimize time spent in the office, some say technology makes it harder for lawyers to stop working at all. Blackberries, the handheld devices that allow people to check e-mail anytime, have earned the nickname "crackberries" in some law firms because lawyers have a hard time putting them down.

"The expectation of total availability has gotten in the way of having any manageable life. They'll even hook you up to a computer in a hospital, post-delivery," said Deborah Rhode, professor and director of the Center for Ethics at Stanford Law School in Palo Alto, Calif., and former ABA chair on the Committee of Women in the Profession.

These demands clash with a growing sense of intolerance for spending excessive amounts of time in the office. Fortney's findings showed that 46 percent of lawyers in managerial positions would exchange part of their salary for more free time.

"We have a whole new mindset about quality of life," Patton said. "The conflict of that with the billable hour increase was the head-on collision that got things going. We haven't found a resolution for it yet."

Bruce Tulgan, founder of the New Haven, Conn.-based management consulting company Rainmaker Thinking, Inc., spent the decade from 1993 to 2003 studying the workplace in light of generational dynamics. In his the executive summary of his study, Generational Shift: What We Saw at the Workplace Revolution,Tulgan points out a greater desire for work-life balance among members of Generation X (born 1965-77) and Generation Y (born 1978-89), compared with those of earlier generations.

That sentiment is reflected among some of today's law students. Judith Maute, a law professor at University of Oklahoma in Norman, Okla., said she distributes note cards on the first day of class to ask students about their concerns. Maute, who left behind the 70-hour weeks she worked in a law firm for a schedule that she can control, said intense time commitment is one concern she gets from a number of students.

Laura Rawski, 22 and a first-year law student at Notre Dame Law School in South Bend, Ind., said she wants to have four children and a legal career, with time to travel on the side. She plans to pursue her interest in human rights and international law through work with the government or a nongovernmental organization such as Amnesty International, in part because she thinks that the time commitment would be less intense than at a large firm. Her goal to become a federal judge also is party inspired by the hours.

"The courthouse isn't open all night," Rawski said.

In her third year of law school at University of Detroit Mercy in Detroit, Melanie Harden, 36, isn't even considering a career in a firm, and that's mostly because of the hours. She likes traveling and relaxing, and working 80 hours a week at a law firm wouldn't allow much room for those things, she said.

"At the end, when you're sitting in the rocking chair, you're not going to say, 'I wish I'd spent more time in the office,'" Harden said.

Like Rawski and Harden, other students might eventually opt for careers outside of firms because of the more flexible schedules. Fortney said 29 percent of lawyers who leave firms go in-house, while another 16 percent go to work for the government. Her data showed that of the three categories of lawyers polled—in-house, government and private practice—government lawyers were the most satisfied, followed by in-house.

Vanessa Alvarez, president of the national in-house lawyer placement company General Counsel Consulting, said one reason many lawyers she works with make the move to the corporate sector is for a more predictable work schedule.

That was the case for Michael Turbes, 35, who figured out he wanted to work in-house after he interned at a law firm in college. Turbes, who worked at two firms before starting at Bell South, said the rhythm in working at a company is different than at a firm.

"There's not an expectation that I'm here on the weekends," Turbes said.

Overworked lawyers aren't the only ones realizing the need for better work-life balance. In the past decade, leaders at many law firms have adopted policies allowing for more flexible schedules. These "reduced-hours" programs, as they're called, allow lawyers to cut back their work calendars, some as much as 50 percent, and be compensated accordingly. Through the programs, firms also allow lawyers to access the office network so that they can work from home.

The firm Kirkpatrick and Lockhart Nicholson Graham, which launched its balanced-hours program in January 2006, caters to the schedules of lawyers who participate, said Roslyn Pitts, who facilitates the program as the firm's Pittsburgh-based director of legal recruitment and professional development.

Pitts couldn't give the number of lawyers who participate because information about participants is kept confidential, but she said the concept has caught on at KLNG.

"It was necessary to benefit our lawyers," Pitts said. "It's really improved their quality of life and, with that, we feel we improve the quality of service to our clients."

Some participating lawyers say the programs have been a success.

Allen Erenbaum, 43, an LA-based lawyer with Mayer Brown, has worked 80 percent of a full-time schedule since October 2000. His 9-year-old son, Joshua, has autism, and Erenbaum's flexible agenda allows him to work off-hours so he has time during the day to take Joshua to therapy sessions or to talk to the school district about better programming for autistic children.

"I need to ensure that I have plenty of time to deal with his needs," Erenbaum said. "Work has to kind of fit in with other commitments."

Mayer Brown has been supportive, Erenbaum said. At the firm, 67 of about 1,000 lawyers work reduced schedules, and Erenbaum has been promoted twice—first to counsel, then to partner.

This success hasn't been the case at all firms, though. Experts say that just because part-time options are offered doesn't mean lawyers feel comfortable using them.

The 2005 NALP study showed that 93 percent of managing-level lawyers who responded to the survey indicated that their firms allowed reduced-hour arrangements, but only 4 percent of lawyers actually take advantage of them, Patton said.

In some cases there's a stigma attached to working part time in a career that tends to measure value by the number of hours billed.

Lauren Stiller Rikleen, a senior partner at Bowditch & Dewey in Framingham, Mass., surveyed lawyers at more than 100 firms for her 2006 book Ending the Gauntlet: Removing Barriers to Women's Success in the Law. Rikleen said some firms have policies that prohibit promoting part-timers to partner level.

Even firms that don't ban promotion of part-timers might give them lower-caliber assignments, said Joan Williams, who co-founded Project for Attorney Retention in 2000 as an initiative to improve work-life balance in the legal profession.

Other times, those on reduced hours simply get inferior treatment. In her 2001 report on a study of work-life programs in Washington, D.C., Williams writes about a couple of part-timers at one Washington firm who would signal an "L" on their foreheads when they saw each other in the firm's library. The action indicated how they said they were made to feel at the firm—like losers—because of their reduced-hour status."Many at law firms who think they've solved the problem, sadly, have not," Williams said.

Another hindrance to reduced hours is schedule creep. In some cases, experts say, reduced-hours lawyers end up working full time to get the job done. Sometimes, they aren't compensated for the extra time they put in.

Julie Rodriguez Aldort, a senior associate at Butler Rubin Saltarelli and Boyd in Chicago, started part time a year ago to have more time with her 19-month-old daughter, Isabelle. She's on a schedule that's 70 percent of full time, but it doesn't always pan out according to the plan: 8:30 a.m. to 4:45 p.m., Monday through Thursday. When a lot of partners at her 33-person firm are involved in a trial, she has to compensate. Aldort said she spent several months without taking a Friday off and often takes her computer home to work after Isabelle goes to bed at 7:30 p.m.

"Your clients don't see you as a part-time lawyer," Aldort said. "You still have to be available to your clients 100 percent of the time."

Still, Aldort said the flexibility of the system helps her justify working less when she can—and it lets her leave without guilt at 5 p.m. to make it home for dinner. Eventually, she hopes she'll be able to scale back as much as she wants.

"I assume I'll come to a point where I can make reduced hours what it should be," Aldort said.

Some work-life balance advocates share her optimism about the future success of reduced-hours arrangements.

The data indicates there might be some progress. The August 2006 American Lawyer Survey of Midlevel Associates at 175 firms showed the average score for family friendliness was 3.61 on a scale of one to five. The Washington, D.C.-based Wiley Rein and Fielding ranked highest with a score of 4.64, and 39 firms scored 4.0 or better.

Michael Nannes, managing partner at the sixth-ranking Washington, D.C.-based Dickstein Shapiro, said the key to success is that firms set the tone that work-life balance is valued there.

At Dickstein Shapiro, 28 of 350 employees take advantage of the firm's scheduling options, which range from taking off more time during the summer to working four-day weeks. Five reduced-hours participants are partners, Nannes said, and four of them made partner while on the scaled-back schedule.

"If you have a conference call at work, it's bad if you miss that," Nannes said. "But if you have a car pool and 6-year-olds are standing on the street corner crying because there's no one there to pick them up, that's worse."

Fortney's study showed a correlation between the number of initiatives firms offer and the satisfaction of their employees. At firms with more than 10 initiatives, the average satisfaction rating was 3.51 on a one to five scale, compared with the 2.89 average at firms with fewer than five initiatives.

Numbers such as these will drive change, Fortney said. The more that firms realize they can't afford to lose lawyers, the more they'll make reduced hours a priority.

Client pressures also could shape firms' focus. Rikleen said as clients demand more gender diversity in firms, employers will be encouraged to attract women by gaining reputations as places that offer the chance for work-life balance.

That very reputation was what drew Leonhard to Sonnenschien in 1999. She made the switch to an 80 percent schedule a month after Sept. 11, 2001, which she said made her realize that she wanted to spend more time with her children, Lina, 5, and Anya, 8.

She's since advanced to counsel and then partner. Though she aims to be in the office strictly from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day, Leonhard said few of her co-workers know she's even on a reduced schedule because she makes a point to get the job done. Sometimes that means bringing work home and plugging away until the wee hours.

"I'm realistic about this—we've got very tight deadlines and lots of consequences," Leonhard said. "I'm just resigned to the fact that I'm going to have to balance to the best of my ability."

Pitts of KLNG said stories like Leonhard's will help drive change within the industry by eradicating the stigma that working reduced hours means being less productive.

"It's just going to take time for the industry to learn that they can change the way they do business," Pitts said.

But some say reduced-hours programs may not be the most effective way of making that change. Tulgan of Rainmaker Thinking said the idea of framing a program as part-time discourages employees from participating.

The key, Tulgan said, is communication between managers and employees in what he calls an "ongoing transactional relationship." "You say to your partner, 'I'm going to get this project done by Wednesday at midnight so that I can spend Thursday with my kids.' That's how real work-life balance happens," Tulgan said. "It's the idea, 'If you do what we need, we'll give you what you need.'"

In order for the system to work, both parties have to realize that results, not hours in an office chair, are what matter, Tulgan said.

Some firms are recognizing the validity of this concept. Nannes of Dickstein Shapiro said effective work-life balance requires flexibility on the part of the firm and the lawyer. At his firm, lawyers working reduced hours can adapt their schedule to what works best for them. But they also have to realize that occasionally the firm can demand more to get the job done.

Michael Roster also endorses the results-based approach. As general counsel at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., he implemented a system of working with three outside counsel on a fixed-priced basis so that billable hours were no longer part of the system.

"I was interested in outcomes, not memos," said Roster, now executive vice president and general counsel for Golden West Financial Co.

Roster said the solution to creating better work-life balance lies in returning to the retainer relationships—in which the clients pay firms a fixed annual amount—that dominated before the billable hour.

But he said major force will be needed to cause that change, and Roster and others aren't holding their breath that it will happen anytime soon.

In the meantime, some are proposing different solutions. Hirshon of Tonkon Torp said work-life balance is too narrow a concept. Instead, firms need to promote "work balance," so that the work itself becomes more enjoyable. Lawyers shouldn't just focus on billing hours; instead, they should devote their working hours to activities such as building clientele through involvement in their communities and bar associations, in addition to billing clients.

"If all you have time to do is sit in your office, go home, eat, go back to your office and bill hours, that's a pretty dreary existence," Hirshon said. "If we don't allow younger people to spend time and learn about business development, they're never going to be completely successful as lawyers. They're never going to be well-rounded."

Some full-time lawyers have found their own ways to juggle careers and lives outside them.

Peter Winik, 51 and a partner at Latham & Watkins in Washington, D.C., said technology can be a big part of the solution, as long as lawyers know how to switch it off. When his kids were in grade school, he made it home to have dinner with his family every night and sometimes did work from his computer later in the evening.

Winik said he also set aside time for vacations with his family. And on the occasions he traveled to the West Coast for work, he'd take the red-eye plane so that he'd have the whole weekend at home with his wife and kids.

"You just have to prioritize family as well as work," Winik said. "Sometimes the only thing that gives is sleep."

Such sacrifices are what helped de Hoyos strike the work-life balance. She said a combination of "support, stability and good luck" have helped her succeed on both family and career fronts. She's learned she has to give up personal time to make the balance work.

"There may be time to work hard and spend a lot of time with family," de Hoyos said. "There's not much time outside of that."

Horne also is making a stronger effort to find her own work-life balance these days. Two years after her failed London trip, Horne said she now makes time to attend jazz concerts and Broadway shows, sometimes returning to the office afterwards at 10 or 11 p.m. to finish up her work.

"That helps to minimize the feeling of 'Gosh, I never get to do anything,'" Horne said. "I try not to let the firm hijack my life."
Jarosz is a senior at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism in Evanston, Ill.

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